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‘Twist’ Review: Updated Dickens Adaptation Aims for the Streets and Splats on the Sidewalk

Variety logo Variety 7/29/2021 Guy Lodge
a person wearing a hat © Courtesy of Sky Cinema

It’s a peculiarity of Michael Caine’s bluff Cockney star persona that he could have plausibly played Fagin in any adaptation of “Oliver Twist” over the last 50-odd years; it’s an unfortunate failure of judgment that he has chosen to finally do so in “Twist.” Nominally updating Charles Dickens’ much-filmed yarn of crime, punishment and improvised family to the streets and rooftops of 21st-century London, Martin Owen’s film instead feels instantly, even desperately, outmoded, using all the graffiti, parkour and streetwear it can to disguise the fact that it has no fresh angle on the material at all — merely a heist-by-numbers subplot straight out Guy Ritchie’s drafts bin, welded to Dickens’ coming-of-age narrative with all the poetry of a press release for a brand collaboration.

Released directly and with minimal fanfare to the U.K.’s Sky Cinema streaming service in the January lockdown, “Twist” is now hitting bigger screens in the U.S. via Saban Films, though it hardly merits the magnification.

Perhaps “Twist” will be remembered as the film that gave model Raff Law — son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost — his big leading-man break, though it’s not an auspicious arrival. Possessed of his father’s cheekbones but not his presence, the actor looks mostly overwhelmed throughout. A reasonable enough match for how his adult-age, spray paint-wielding Oliver has been conceived by the screenwriters, though his muted, diffident line readings suggest that might be a happy accident. There’s a lot of underacting and overacting in this rather straightforward “Twist,” and those acquainted with the cast list can probably guess who does what. That so few find a middle ground is apt enough for a film with little in the way of a center, much less a soul.

Screenwriters John Wrathall (“Good”) and Sally Collett attempt to squeeze in a bumper load of pathos upfront, hoping that will tide viewers through the remaining, emotionally indifferent 90 minutes. In this version of the tale, instead of being born into misery, Oliver Twist has at least half a happy childhood with doting single mother Molly (Collett again), who instills in him an abiding and inquisitive love of art before promptly dying so the hijinks can begin. Roll forward a few years and Oliver is now a notorious-but-anonymous guerrilla street artist who goes by the moniker “Twist,” sleeping on the sidewalks of London’s East End (and, when he can escape the guards’ notice, the benches of his mom’s beloved National Gallery), and looking remarkably dewy-skinned for his pains.

He’s happy enough as a lone wolf, unaware that his work and movements are being scoped out by Dodge (pop star Rita Ora, perky if not artful) and Batesy (Franz Drameh), two recruiters for the underworld empire of former art dealer Fagin, now plotting an elaborate forgery scheme to get back at a posh gallerist nemesis (David Walliams). A violent, gender-flipped Sikes (Lena Headey, not keeping any of her “Game of Thrones” cool) is somehow invested in the process, and on nobody’s side but her own; that her young female lover Nancy (the promising Sophie Simnett) also has eyes for Twist sets up an idle love triangle that goes nowhere in particular. Jettisoning most of the story of Dickens’ saga, Wrathall and Collett instead belabor a heist plot that is neither especially complex nor especially thought-through: A further four writers are credited with “additional material,” though that doesn’t stop “Twist” feeling under-imagined at every turn.

Apart from a smattering of GoPro camerawork in the film’s opening credit sequence, there’s precious little attempt to modernize the film’s cinematic language either: A brightly lit, youth-TV aesthetic prevails, while a number of the film’s needle-drops feel more late-millennial than Generation Z. Twist, for his part, wants to be the next Banksy and professes himself “confused” by Nancy’s bisexuality. He seems confused by a lot of things, to be fair, but he also barely comes across as a child of the 21st century. Carol Reed’s “Oliver!,” now 53 years old, feels more authentically youthful and vibrant than this try-hard “how do you do, fellow kids” exercise. Who will buy, indeed.

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